Race at Goodman Theatre | Theater review

David Mamet’s latest offers interesting arguments about our racial divides; what it doesn’t offer are fully breathing characters.

Photograph: Eric Y. Exit
David Mamet's Race at Goodman Theatre

The accused is an older white man who was born into wealth and stayed there, the kind of man who’s never heard the word no. His alleged crime: raping a black woman. And his judges, in David Mamet’s slight but scorching 2009 play, are three lawyers at the firm the man hopes will defend him: two male partners, one black, one white, and a black female associate.

The setup immediately recalls Oleanna, Mamet’s petulant take on sexual harassment and the early-’90s obsession with “political correctness.” But while the playwright here repeats Oleanna’s penchant for writing arguments rather than characters, the arguments are at least surprisingly complex considering Mamet’s proud public slide into knee-jerk crotchety conservatism. There are moments when the dramatist retreats into his bad-boy contrarian tendencies: Some black people might resent affirmative action! How naughtily un-PC to acknowledge that! But for the most part, Mamet’s arguments are both provocative and multiperspectival.

Which isn’t to say they’re strongly dramatized. From white partner Jack (Marc Grapey) and his Socratic interrogations of young associate Susan (Tamberla Perry) to black partner Henry’s (Geoffrey Owens) Shavian discourses on what white people can say to black people about race (short answer: nothing), Race feels more like an engaging, entertaining essay than a play. Perhaps if Chuck Smith’s production picked up the pace—Owens and Grapey share pauses more appropriate to Pinter than Mamet—we’d be less likely to notice Mamet’s perfunctory plotting.

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